P is for Power

When we think of political power we often think of powerful men... and, less frequently, women. We also think of powerful institutions.

We rage against these individuals and institutions because they wield power over us. They limit our own potential, our own power to live our lives, flourish and thrive.

When we think of political change we often think of capturing or destroying those institutions. We think of choosing leaders more to our liking.

We believe such leaders would grant us more freedom, that their leadership would enable us to thrive – or at least be more able to survive.

This way of thinking is back-to-front. It starts in the wrong place. We must begin again…

We must begin from below. With us – the 7.8 billion humans alive on our planet. With our potential, with our collective power.

We do not choose the circumstances in which we act, in which we exercise power.

We can rarely predict the consequences of our actions on the world.

Nevertheless it’s these actions – our actions – that make the world and remake it. We are the makers of history.

The power of every single powerful person and every single powerful institution derives from us – from our power. Their power is a frozen, alienated form of our own potential.

For example, during the first weeks of the COVID pandemic, thousands of mutual aid groups sprang up, as local communities organised to support each other.

While those in power hesitated, people exercised their power-to, arranging food deliveries, collecting medicines, offering support to the vulnerable and isolated.

Many of these networks and resources were later co-opted by local authorities. Flexible, responsive initiatives were dragged back into local state bureaucracies. Our power-to seemed to recede. It was transformed into power-over.

It’s a familiar story.

Power-over is always just transformed power-to. It’s us turned against ourselves.

Power-over is wholly dependent upon us. Power-over cannot exist without power-to – without us. That is where we find hope.

“Protest is like begging the powers that be to dig a well. Direct action is digging the well and daring them to stop you.”

When we complain about a fence, we’re turning to power-over. When we tear down the fence ourselves we’re exercising power-to.

Notes and references

The distinction between power-to and power-over is taken from John Holloway’s book Change the World Without Taking Power (you can read it here). The quotation about protest vis-à-vis direct action is David Graeber’s.